Elphinstone, William (1431-1514) (DNB00)

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ELPHINSTONE, WILLIAM (1431–1514), bishop of Aberdeen and founder of Aberdeen University, was born at Glasgow in 1431. He is stated to have been the son of William Elphinstone of Blythswood, Lanarkshire, a connection of the noble family of that name, by Margaret Douglas of the house of Mains, Dumbartonshire. But more than once in his career he required royal letters of legitimation to enable him to take office, and there is every reason to believe that he was the son of an illicitly married cleric, who was probably identical with the William Elphinstone who was canon of Glasgow from 1451 to 1482, dean of the faculty of arts in Glasgow University in 1468, prebend of Ancrum in 1479, and archdeacon of Teviotdale in 1482, and who died in 1486. The younger Elphinstone was educated in the pedagogie at Glasgow and afterwards at the university. There are several entries in the registers of the univeraity of his name which was a common one. Probably he took the M.A. degree on 16 March 1451-2, after which indifferent health compelled him to live for some time quietly at home with his parents. Resuming his studies, he applied himself to the reading of civil and canon law, and practised in the church courts. He was ordained priest and became rector of St. Michael's Church, Trongate, in 1465, and was in the same year a regent of the university. After four years' ministry Eiphinstone was persuaded by his uncle, Laurence Elphinstone, who furnished him with the necessary funds, to complete his study of law at the university of Paris. There his attainments were speedily recognised, and he was shortly appointed to the post of 'first resder' in canon law. While in Paris he formed the acquaintance of John de Gaucir, with whom he continued on terms of affectionate intimacy till Gaucir's death. After obtaining the degree of doctor of decrees at Paris, Elphinstone proceeded to Orleans, where he lectured at the university on his special subject. On the advice of Bisbop Muirhead of Glasgow he returned home (in 1474 at latest) and was almost immediately chosen rector of the university and, not long afterwards, official of Glasgow. in his judicial capacity he won high esteem, though his sentences did not err on the side of leniency, and in 1478 he was promoted to be official of Lothian and archdeacon of Lismore. He now took his seat in the national parliament and frequently served on judicial committees. In 1479 he was sent on a political mission to Louis XI, whicfi he accomplished so much to the satisfaction of James III that on his return he was made archdeacon of Argyll. In March 1481 he was 'electus confirmatus Rossensis,' but his consecration appears to have been delayed, for he did not sit in parliament as bishop of Ross till the close of the following year, in which he had gone as ambassador from James III to Edward IV, to dissuade the latter from lending assistance to the Duke of Albany. In 1483 he was a privy councillor, and was nominated to the see of Aberdeen, though he was not consecrated till some time between 17 Dec. 1487 and April 1488, probably owing to the difficulty occasioned by his illegtimate birth. He was sent a second time as ambassador to England in 1484, to treat for a truce and to arrange a marriage between James III and Edward IVs niece, Anne; and again after the accession of Henry VII, when he was instrumental in concluding a three years' truce. In the intervals of his journeys Elphinstone was busily employed in Edinburgh, where he was now a lord auditor of complaints, and constantly attended in parliament. He also gave attention to the requirements of his see of Aberdeen, reforming the cathedral services, which bad fallen into disuse, and restoring the fabric by covering the whole roof with lead and by the addition of the great steeple at the east end. For this steeple he furnished at his own expense fourteen 'tuneable' bells, which were hung on some adjacent oak trees in such a manner that they could be rung from inside the building. In the struggle between James III and his nobles Elphinstone remained loyal to the king, and in February 1488 he was appointed lord high chancellor, an office which he held only till James's death in the following June, when he retired to Aberdeen. The value of his services, however, was fully appreciated by the young king, and he was summoned to Edinburgh to sit in parliament and resume his duties as lord auditor. His diplomatic talents were especially in request. In 1491 he was one of an embassy which was sent to France to contract a marriage for the king; in October of the following year he was one of the commissioners appointed to treat with the English commiesioners at Coldstream for redress of injuries and the extension of the existing truce; and, later, probably in 1493, he was sent on a mission to the Emperor Maximilian to arrange a marriage between the letter's daughter and James IV. On this occasion he arrived only to find the lady already married, but on his way home he concluded a treaty between Scotland and Holland. In 1492 he had been made keeper of the privy seal, a post which he still held in 1509, and probably continued to hold till his death. For the remainder of his life Elphinstone, when not occupied by affairs of state, devoted his chief energies to the foundation and constitution of King's College at Aberdeen. The necessary papal bull was obtained in 1594, and the royal charter erecting old Aberdeen into a city and university was granted in 1498. Under Elphinstone's direction, the king set apart certain tithes and other revenues for the maintenance of the college the building of which was commenced in 1500 and completed in 1506. In the meantime Elphinstone had obtained the assistance and co-operation of Boece and Hay, the former of whom he appointed first rector of his university. The constitution was modelled on that of the universities of Paris and Bologna, from which it differed, however, in one important principle. Dr. Thomas Reid (Account of the University of Glasgow) has pointed out that, 'either from experience of what Elphinstone had observed in Glasgow, or from a deeper knowledge of human nature, he supplied both the defects of Glasgow, for he gave salaries to those who were to teach theology, canon and civil law, medicine, language, and philosophy, and pensions to a certain number of poor students, and likewise appointed a visitorial power, reserving to himself as chancellor, and to his successors in that office, a dictatorial power.’ The soundness of the principles on which Elphinstone founded his university [for further details concerning which see Boece, Hector] was shown in the position it speedily assumed as first in popularity and fame among the Scotch universities. Other public works in Aberdeen due to Elphinstone were the rebuilding of the choir of the cathedral and the erection of a bridge over the Dee, for the completion of which he left a large sum of money. He was also mainly responsible for the introduction of printing into Scotland, obtaining in 1507 a grant of exclusive privileges in favour of Walter Chapman and Andrew Millar of Edinburgh. He personally superintended the production at their press of the ‘Breviarium Aberdonense,’ some of the lives of saints in which are believed to be of his authorship. Elphinstone was strongly opposed to the hostile policy towards England which culminated in the battle of Flodden, and that event is said to have hastened his end. ‘He was never after it seen to smile,’ says Boece. He journeyed to Edinburgh to attend the parliament which was summoned in 1514, but he was seized with illness at Dunfermline and died shortly after his arrival in the capital on 25 Oct. 1514. He had been already nominated by the queen for the bishopric of St. Andrews. His body was embalmed and conveyed to Aberdeen, where it was buried in the college beneath the first step of the high altar. That Elphinstone left any literary remains is by no means certain. He collected materials relating to the history of Scotland and particularly of the western isles, but he was not the author of the continuation of the ‘Scotichronicon’ in the Bodleian Library, which has been attributed to him by biographers from Tanner downwards, but which has been conclusively proved to be the work of Maurice de Buchanan. Another work attributed to him was the ‘Lives of Scottish Saints,’ and in the library of Aberdeen University are a number of volumes on canon law which bear his name, but there is nothing to show that he was their author rather than possessor. Elphinstone was at once the foremost churchman and statesman of his time in Scotland; his pre-eminence in wisdom, learning, benevolence, and generosity has never been questioned, nor his name mentioned except in terms of high praise.

[The chief authority for Elphinstone's life is the memoir by his friend Boece included in the lives of the Bishops of Mortlach and Aberdeen, which contains, however, not a single date, while the points he fixes by giving the bishop's age are for the most part irreconcilable with other sources of information. These are to be found in the Rolls Series relating to Scotland and in the Registrum Episcopatus Aberdonensis and Fasti Aberdonenses, both of which are published by the Spalding Club, and contain prefaces by Mr. Cosmo Innes dealing with Elphinstone's career. The preface to Alexander Garden's metrical version of Boece's Life of Elphinstone (published by the Hunterian Club) by Mr. David Laing contains, amid much research, an attempt to reconcile the various discrepancies in the dates, but fixes little, while it unsettles much. Elaborate panegyrics on Elphinstone will be found in the works of Leslie and Spotiswood.]

A. V.